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Outlook in the Middle East? Depressing

How’s this for depressing?

How’s this for depressing? At a panel at the Humphrey Institute this morning on “The Greater Middle East,” cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, CFR chief Richard Haass asked Humphrey scholar Michael Powell, an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict, whether he believed a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have a large beneficial impact on the rest of the Mideast problems that will be facing the next president. Barnett said no, he didn’t believe it would. Then Haass and Barnett compared their levels of pessimism about the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict, thus:

Haass: “I’ve been looking at this situation between Israel and the Palestinians for almost four decades. I find it hard to look back and find a time historically when there was less to work with. There is a divided Palestinian leadership. The people we like to work with can’t deliver a lot. The people we don’t want to work with probably could deliver if they wanted to, but don’t seem to want to.

“Israel is going through another of its political crises. So imagine the equation in a few months looks pretty much the way it looks now when a new administration takes office. Do they have anything to work with?

Barnett: “Not much. You thought Iraq and Iran were depressing subjects, I think they pale in comparison to what we may be seeing in the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

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“Like you, I’ve been watching the Israeli Palestinian issues for a lifetime. And I’ve never been more depressed. The way I liken it now, as an outside observer, is to something like a suicide watch. That these have been national communities that have tried to have some degree of national self-determination and statehood, and I think that’s more elusive in some respects than ever before. If we think about the possible solutions to civil wars — and I do think that the Israeli Palestinian conflict should be thought of as a civil war that’s been raging for decades, not just recently — then we’ve got three possible solutions

“One is a negotiated settlement. But, as many observers have said, we’re close to midnight and that’s not likely to happen given what’s taking place, the meltdown in Gaza, the political crisis in the West Bank and the ongoing political saga in Israel.

“So let’s assume for a moment that a negotiated solution is no longer available. What are we left with? I think we’ve got two possibilities. One is the way that most civil wars are resolved and that’s through violence. If you look historically at the conclusion of most civil wars, it ends with one side becoming victorious over the other. It’s not a negotiated settlement. If we were to take that as some kind of insight, I suspect that will mean the extinction of one national community or the other. I suspect with the balance of forces right now, and especially given the facts on the ground, Israel is likely to come out ahead in any kind of war. But then again, what would that mean for the Zionist dream. What would that mean for Israeli democracy? I think it would be over.

“In terms of a conception of the Israeli state as it was first imagined by leaders like [Theodor]Herzl and [David] Ben-Gurion, I think it would be over.

“The other possibility is some kind of federation. No longer a two-state solution, but a one-state solution. And federation has many different kinds of meaning. But the climate on the ground is changing where many Palestinian intellectuals are saying that a two-state solution is no longer possible. So let’s now imagine the alternative.

“Recently Sari Nusseibh, the president of Al Quds University, has intimated that he might run for mayor of Jerusalem and in doing so represent the Palestinians. Of course that represents, if you will, something like a nuclear option for the Palestinians, at least as far as the Israelis are concerned. If the Palestinians start clamoring for representation, start clamoring for citizenship, for the right to vote, over the next decade that would mean the end of an Israeli Zionist entity.”

Haass: “I think there’s a fourth option, which is the continuation of the status quo. Some version of stasis.” 

Oh good. The status quo of perpetual conflict.

This was a very smart, mostly very depressing panel, reviewing the flashpoints of the Greater Middle East (defining it all the way to Egypt to Pakistan), based on the premise that the next president has a lot more problems than easy fixes in the region.

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The Iraq specialist, Meghan O’Sullivan of Harvard (and formerly of the Bush administration, considered to be one of the architects of the “surge” strategy) seemed confident that that the war was going better, that a Status of Forces Agreement would soon be signed leading to an “aspirational (translation: non-binding) time line” (but it should be tied to concrete, measureable achievements) for the removal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq in the aspirational range of 2011. But she warned that the prospect of U.S. drawdown will make it harder for the Iraqi subpopulations (Sunni, Shia, Kurd) to reconcile as each will want to consolidate their tribal gains.

The Iran scholar, Vali R. Nasr of Tufts and the CFR, said Iran’s hope was that a process of engagement with the United States would take shape over several years, leading to recognition, to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, to a U.S. recognition of Iran’s aspirations for leadership in the region. Others on the panel, including Haass, said that anyone who thinks Israel will restrain itself for several years while Iran continues to make nuclear progress had better be careful.

As far as the goal of building democracy in the region, Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the CFR, took on the line, used by both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that past U.S. policy in the region tried to “purchase stability at the price of liberty… And got neither.”

Cook said that for all the appearance of instability, the royal families and dictators of the Middle East had been surprisingly stable regimes. The Saudi Royal family, the Assad dynasty in Syria, the succession of Egyptian dictators, have all lasted a long time and aren’t going anywhere soon to make room for democracy.

Haass said Pakistan “could emerge as the greatest national security challenge for the next president.” It has nuclear weapons, radical Muslims, ethnic rivalries and its elected government was held together over recent months by shared antipathy for President Pervez Musharraf. Now he’s gone and nothing much is holding it together.

Nasr said “there is a real possibility of total ethnic breakdown in Pakistan. Nasr also shed some light on why Pakistan hasn’t been the most reliable U.S. ally during Washington’s war in and occupation of Afghanistan:

“When it comes to Afghanistan, the Pakistanis have seen Afghanistan very differently from the United States. With them it’s all about their rivalry with India.

“It’s a territory that they owned until 9/11. And then they lost it because of the fall of the Taliban. Their strategic priorities in Afghanistan are still decided by their rivalry with India. For them, the current Afghan government is essentially a potential a satellite of Dehli.

“They don’t like the Karzai government. They don’t like the idea of a strong, centralized government in Afghanistan that’s not under their control.

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“When you talk to Pakistani generals, they don’t talk about the number of Taliban attacks or the volume of drug trade. They’re only interested in one statistic, which is the number of Indian consulates that are open in Afghanistan. We’re looking at the same country and seeing different priorities.

“That’s one reason we haven’t been able to get the Pakistanis to fully collaborate and to completely shut down the Taliban. In Pakistan’s mind, the Taliban are the one way in which they can still be relevant to deciding the future of Afghanistan, and not losing control to what they see as an independent Afghanistan that’s going to be close to India and then is going to put Pakistan in a much less advantageous position.”

Oh good.